Hot heat in Chicago

Scott Bradfield revels in a new biography of a jazz legend

Louis Armstrong: an extravagant life by Laurence Bergreen, HarperCollins, pounds 25

Louis Armstrong, gravel-throated trumpeter and vocalist, generated what musicians refer to as "hot heat". He was loud. He played just ahead of tempo. And he never let up for a moment. A life-long devotee of both marijuana and laxatives, Armstrong considered "blasting" more than just a way of making music. It meant taking every available opportunity to let it all out.

Born on 4 August 1901, Armstrong was raised in the notorious Storyville section of New Orleans, where music had to be loud if it was going to be heard at all. His mother was a prostitute; his father ran off before he was born; and about the only thing Armstrong could ever count on was his own high energy and good humour. At a time when most of his male contemporaries were growing up to become either gangsters or pimps, Armstrong quit school at 11 to drive a junk car by day and a coal cart by night. And in a city bubbling over with this new thing called jazz, he listened to the likes of Buddy Bolden at the Funky Butt Hall, and taught himself to play on borrowed instruments.

Before "bebop" lent a too-serious air to the proceedings, jazz was basically whorehouse music - hard, humming, even a little lewd. After a four-year stint in reform school for firing off a pistol on New Year's Eve, Armstrong made his name with a song called "Take Your Finger Outta Katie's Ass", which he sang while performing his own version of the Shimmy. Then, when the Mayor of New Orleans closed Storyville down in 1917, Armstrong joined the diaspora of musicians to Chicago, and taught people up North the meaning of the word "scat" in such songs as "Heebie Jeebies" and "Gut Bucket Blues."

Because Armstrong preferred having a good time to making money, he was always in need of a guiding hand to keep him on the straight and narrow. In Chicago, this hand belonged to his second wife, Lil Hardin, a classically- trained pianist who billed Louis as "The World's Greatest Trumpet Player", and managed to persuade local journalists that it was true. Through Lil, Armstrong accepted a series of recording contracts from Okeh, a newly- launched producer of so-called "race-records", and, with the help of Kid Ory on trombone, Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five, began generating one recorded hit after another, thus providing Woody Allen with enough material for several motion picture sound-tracks.

Armstrong's baptismal certificate identified him as niger, illegitimus, and like many of life's strays, Louis learned to make up his own family as he went along. He consorted freely with prostitutes, gangsters, bootleggers and even white movie stars (though none of the latter invited him into their homes), and despite the fact that Armstrong rarely had anything bad to say about anybody, he suffered more than his share of racism from both sides of the tracks. Branded as "uppity" by southern DJs because he toured the country with a mixed-race band, and as an "Uncle Tom" by Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie for being more popular with white audiences than they were, Armstrong never let anybody dissuade him from his chosen mission - playing as much music as possible to anybody who would listen. "That horn ain't prejudiced," Armstrong once claimed. "A note's a note in any language."

Known as "Satchmo" after his nickname "Satchelmouth" was mis-reported by a British journalist, Armstrong went on to become America's most popular black entertainer. As a result, the true genius of his work is often overlooked in favour of his later, "feel-good" songs, such as "What a Wonderful World" and "Hello, Dolly." Laurence Bergreen's excellent new biography, however, should correct all the old false impressions, because it's one of those rare works of jazz scholarship not designed exclusively for highbrows and buffs. Instead, it depicts Armstrong and his music as they really were - irresistible fun, and translatable into any language. With excellent pocket biographies of everyone, from Armstrong's thuggish manager, Joe Glaser, to his brilliant contemporary, Bix Beiderbeck (who produced on his own trumpet, incidentally, what was known as "cool heat"), An Extravagant Life is readable, entertaining and culturally astute. In other words, you don't have to know jazz to enjoy it. But once you've finished reading it, the music will definitely get you. Just you wait.

Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

Arts and Entertainment
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform